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Are major college basketball programs still destination jobs?

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Why a major college basketball job isn’t like a major college football job, and what this could mean for a school like Indiana.

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In college football, there is a clear caste system. If you want to win the college football playoff and national title, you have to be a Power 5 school. Otherwise, you don’t really have a shot. The recent conference realignment in college athletics has helped to make this clear.

However, this doesn’t exist in college basketball, which has become more of a meritocracy. And this meritocracy makes finding a coach in college hoops a much more difficult prospect. Even at schools with the rich history and tradition like Indiana University.

During the past decade, several mid-majors in college hoops have risen from "cute Cinderella story" to "perennial top-25 team." Ever since George Mason shocked UConn to reach the Final Four in 2006, college basketball teams that aren’t in these Power 5 conferences have been making inroads and coming closer to achieving a national title. Mason, VCU, Butler, and Wichita State have all made final fours. Gonzaga could be a 1-seed for the second time in three years. The Atlantic 10 conference got six teams in the tournament last year, which is as many as the ACC did. And some of these high-performing schools, such as Creighton, Xavier, and Butler, have used their success to elevate themselves to better conferences.

Thus, you don’t need to be at a major conference anymore to be a very successful college basketball coach. Instead of football, where recruiting classes are 20-25 players a year, basketball coaches only need to recruit 2-3 in most seasons. In addition, not every mid-major school has a football program either. Or they field a smaller-scale FCS squad. Without as much money tied up in football, they can focus on other sports.

Now, as of this writing, Tom Crean is still employed as Indiana basketball coach. Thus, this article should not be taken as an endorsement of him staying or him going. But I wanted to touch on a couple of the top mid-major coaching names that I’ve heard as potential replacements down the line, and why they might not be willing to leave their current positions to come to Bloomington.

These two coaches are Gregg Marshall and Shaka Smart.

Both Marshall and Smart have made Final Fours at their current gigs at Wichita State and VCU respectively, and each has consistently been making the NCAA tournament for the past few seasons. As coaches of mid-major schools, they have also been prime candidates for making moves to a major conference program. But both have stayed in their current roles, garnering raises and extensions, despite both the overt and covert temptations of larger schools. And why should they? Marshall has repeatedly discussed his family’s desire to stay in Wichita, and the Shockers have a rocking home crowd, as was evident on College Gameday last weekend. The same goes with Smart, whose teams draw a raucous atmosphere to the Siegel Center in downtown Richmond. Both coaches are at teams who are the main game in town from November to March, in cities that are both larger than Bloomington but still don’t have pro teams.

All of this is a problem for a place like Indiana, where the results of the past 20 years have not measured up to the banners hanging up in Assembly Hall. Other college hoops programs that have the "blue-blood" moniker, such as UNC, Duke, UK, and Kansas, have tasted success more recently. Even UCLA, who hasn’t won a title in 20 years, still made the Final Four for three straight years from 2006-08. When they made a coaching change two years ago, the guy they got was Steve Alford. And though Alford the player did great things at IU, I think all the writers on this blog agree that Alford the coach should not come back here. In addition, no hire is ever a sure thing. Yes, Calipari has worked out great for Kentucky, but the same athletic director also hired Billy Clyde. So you never know.

The mid-majors have leveled the playing field, and with the strong support of fanbases and without the money tied up in football programs, they can afford to keep strong coaches around for longer. Of course, were Fred Glass and company wanting to make a change, it would never hurt to ask and offer the farm. But the recent success from coaches like Marshall and Smart proves that you can field championship-caliber programs without having to be at a Power 5 conference.